#33 “Sailing to Byzantium” (William Butler Yeats)

The “no country for old men” in William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” is probably Yeats’s native Ireland, famous for its salmon and its mackerel. But it might be anywhere (which is why Cormac McCarthy swiped the line for the title of a story that couldn’t have less to do with Ireland, or Byzantium either, for that matter). “No country for old men” is anywhere physical life goes on to its fullest, while those who lead less-active senior lifestyles are left in the dust.

Age was a factor for Yeats when he wrote the poem in 1928. But he was only 63 that year; he had a young wife and two young children. And though you’re proverbially as old as you feel, he wasn’t quite a “tattered coat upon a stick” just yet. He would live for another ten years – much of it spent writing poetry about how old he was feeling.

But it isn’t just old age that can get you feeling out of place in a country where the young are in one another’s arms. “Sensual music” is a beat not everyone can dance to. “Sailing” is a poem for any of us who have felt out of place, in a world where people are out enjoying the physical to an extent we can’t. And when we can’t, we often turn to art for a pleasure unavailable in the physical world.

“Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence.” Sitting down with your guitar is OK, but listening to Jimi Hendrix is better. “Byzantium” in the poem is not Jimi Hendrix, who came on the scene a couple of years after Yeats had left it. Nor is it necessarily the literal capital of the great Greek empire that flourished after the fall of Rome. (By 1928, there had been no Greek empire in Byzantium for almost 500 years, and nobody had used the name “Byzantium” in over 1,500. It was Istanbul, not Constantinople, now.)

Byzantium is any culture that provides a rich medium for the flowering of an art form. It was a dead culture by the time Yeats wrote, but lived on in its art and in reproductions and accounts of that art. Just as Jimi Hendrix, of course, is now as dead as Yeats; he lives on only in recordings. The paradox of art is that it stays dead as a doornail, forever; but it is one of the most inspiring things in life. Such is the fate of the poet who flees the physical to become “such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make.” You can’t have it both ways. And one of the things that I love about this poem is that even while the speaker says he wants to become a nonliving, artificial thing, the poem looks back over its shoulder, longingly, at those “mackerel-crowded seas.”

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7 responses to “#33 “Sailing to Byzantium” (William Butler Yeats)

  1. firewaterboi321

    What is the point if the artificial versus the sensual? Is it better to exist as an artificial creation? Doing so would achieve a form of immortality, but at the cost of the sensuality of the natural. However, the grace of the natural eventually fades and dies. Is Yeats wishing to stay “shiny and new” through the man-made creation of a golden bird? Would it be better to be beautiful, artificial and immortal? Or is it better to be natural, sensual and human? Desire, for the natural, becomes stronger and inescapable as age continues. The artificial have no desire. Juan Ponce de León in the 16th century searched all of what is now Florida to find the Fountain of Youth. Human obsession with eternal youth and beauty is a testament to the desire we feel as creatures of nature. What would we give up if we, as humans, found a way to transfer our consciousness from our biological forms to artificial? I’m not intelligent enough to truly grasp the ramifications of an even on our society. I would imagine there would be considerable debate, even violence, regarding this question. My personal opinion would be, well, no. I wouldn’t want to live forever. No question about that.

  2. This poem depresses me just a bit in that I hope I don’t feel the same way as Yeats did in his old age. I understand feeling “left out” of society and wanting to lose yourself in art. The idea of sailing to a place where art is supreme is very appealing. The only drawback is that that world only exists in the imagination. I am a firm believer in the saying “you are only as old as you feel.” I think that people should take it upon themselves to participate in life. I know that love and “sensual feelings” are not exclusive to the young, the old need to actively participate in life. So many senior citizens today are still very active and social. Only a few have resigned themseleve to being “old.” However, I do like the idea of escaping, momentarily, to a place where learning and art are held in the highest regard. The idea of a place where people don’t judge you and criticize you for simply being who you are. I would like to visit such a place and I think Yeats did an incredible job of conveying the images through his poetry. I see ancient scholar and modern day professors discussing art and interpretations of art. The poem is lovely but I feel that Yeats should have gone out into society and played with the neighborhood children.

  3. This poem made me feel so sad and old, after reading this poem it made me want to go outside and run free and as far as I could just like when the children go outside for recess. I can not beleive that someone with a young wife and children could feel so old and just want to wither away. People grow older and things do change, but it is up to you to get out there and change with them or show poeople the things that were in your day that you enjoyed and looking at them you may see that they have not changed so much. I did like how visual he made his poem, but he just made me feel old and that I am not. Go outside and run free like the children do with no cares in the world. Maybe that’s what people should remember not cares in the world.

  4. This poem made me feel sad for the man that was feeling old. It made me wonder if that is how most older people feel when they reach a certain age. I feel sorry for the older people who feel this way. Its like they are depressed and grumpy to the whole world. I hope that I do not feel this way when I get older. I look at some older people and they are happy about life and love being up in age. I hope this is how I will feel about life when I am older. I do not understand how the older man can feel this way when he had a young wife and young children.

  5. kursteilnehmur

    You are brought into this world; you grow up, realize you exist, grow old and die. Life is a journey that must be lived every day of our lives. This poem shows but a tiny fragment within the true nature of life itself. That is what makes this poem so beautiful. It seems that the poet is longing for an immortality of some kind, whether it is an artificial article, an edifice for all to see or simply an etching in stone. This air almost condones the existence of mortality and human bodily form. Is it better to search for knowledge? In the end do we need to be remembered? Is there truly no country for old men? Or is that just something said by those who would wish it so? Perhaps we will find out in the nation of Byzantium where we can grow in song and wisdom without qualms of age, talent, race, intelligence or a plethora of other differences. Myth perpetuates this diminutive moment of hope when all cry out for the world to hear that the city of Byzantium is accessible to all that would stop, and whisper on their not so foreign shores. Does this place truly exist? Of course it does, it has just been renamed, relocated and refurbished to house new mediums of communication. Colleges, Books, Libraries, Universities, Internet forums and blogs are these new realms of Byzantium. Many a man, woman or child has searched these to glean hope and purpose. Just as Byzantium has been renamed Constantinople, and Istanbul we too have made new kingdoms of knowledge dedicated to the advancement of our civilization, mind and body. Byzantium is not only an imaginary world that is make-believe. The world of Byzantium is all around us, set yourself free and find the knowledge you seek. If you cast off the limitations you impose on your mind you will find the nation of Byzantium.

  6. When I read Sailing to Byzantium I think of an old man watching the younger ones do all the work. He misses the good old days when he was able to haul in today’s catch or work with his hands. Although he is looking for the better days of his youth I do not think that he would actually like to stay that way forever. He does not want to be an object like the poem makes you suspect he just wants to be remembered. The way that he wants to be remembered is of a good and solid form like an artifact. He thinks fondly of his youth and his days working with the seas. The speaker ties his life in with beautiful artifacts because he feels that his life is like an artifact that somebody should see.

  7. To me, Byzantium seems to be a metaphor for heaven. He could literally mean that he wants to go to Byzantium, or somewhere that would make him feel alive, but that is not what came to mind when I first read this poem. He mentions being out of bodily form and taken away from aging. It is almost as if he has come to terms with the fact that he will one day die and is even welcoming it with open arms. If you have ever seen the movie “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” it entertains the idea that everyone’s heaven is being forever in the place of their greatest happiness. To the speaker, this description if Byzantium is like that of how he would picture his heaven. Though it may not even be a religious poem, that is how it played in my mind, as he called it a “holy Byzantium” and made the reference to “God’s holy fire.” He wants to be free to feel young again, to dabble in art and to tell stories of greater moments in life. He knows it is impossible for him to go back in time and instead it feels to me as though he would rather move forward and hope that he can be in this world as part of an afterlife.

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